Monday, October 10, 2016

Table Topics

Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs. ANZ set up a club in 2015, and I joined up. In June 2016, I was appointed president of our club, and I started to get involved in the wider Toastmasters organisation outside our club.

As part of this, we held our first Table Topics contest in August. Table Topics is a regular part of a Toastmasters meeting, where members are given a subject title with no prior notice, and have to speak for between one and two minutes on the subject. The challenge with Table Topics is to speak in an organised way, with some structure, on the subject. At this competition I was placed first. The first and second placed contestants were then eligible to go forward to the area contest, which was held on 13th September. At this competition I was placed third, and my colleague, Olivia, was first.

“That’s that” I thought, so far as my continued participation in contests was concerned for the year…at least, as a participant. I had volunteered to judge at other clubs’ contests, and was called on to do so at two clubs in the following weeks. Judging gives a good insight into the quality of competition at other clubs, and I was fortunate to judge both a Table Topics and a humorous contest.  

However, there was a further twist; Olivia was in Auckland for work reasons on the weekend that the divisional contest would take place. The division is the whole of Wellington, so it’s getting quite serious by this time. A week later, I received an email from our Area Director: the second placed contestant was also unable, or unwilling, to compete further, and could I step in to represent Area E6? By all means, I replied.

So it was that I found myself competing in my first divisional Table Topics contest. The contest is part of the divisional conference, which is held twice a year. The other competition held on the day is the humorous speaking contest. There are also various awards handed out, recognition of clubs and individuals, and also a workshop and a warm-up act for the humorous speaking contest.

The conference started at 10am. The contestants briefing, however, was at 9:30am. And there’s only limited parking at the venue, which was the Royal Society of New Zealand. I made a plan: we drove into town for breakfast at Vista cafĂ©, before heading up to Thorndon and, luckily, nabbing the last free parking spot. With plenty of time for the briefing, to boot. We collected our name badges and Nicola took the opportunity to visit New World, there to expend enough spondulicks to qualify for another Little Garden pot. Not that I’m saying that that was her sole motivation, oh no, no, no…yes.

The conference got under way and pretty soon I was escorted from the hall to the waiting area, where we are held until it’s our turn to speak. This is because all contestants are given the same topic, and they mustn’t hear what it is before their turn. I had drawn number 5, so didn’t hear the first 4 contestants speak. This was an improvement on the area contest, where I’d drawn 8th out of 8, so hadn’t heard any of the others.

When it was my turn, I was escorted to the hall, and mic’d up. Then I was introduced, and the contest chair gave me the subject: “Can money buy you happiness?” And I was off.

In some ways, doing a Table Topics speech is the longest minute of your life. In others, it’s the shortest. You’ve got to organise what you’re going to say in a matter of seconds. Open with an arresting statement or quotation; dispense the honorifics (“Mr. Chairman, fellow Toastmasters, distinguished guests”); give your speech, and get to that crucial one-minute mark (speaking for less than a minute gets you disqualified); then wrap it up in a good way, returning to the original question. It doesn’t matter if you say “yes it can” or “no, it can’t” or even if you sit on the fence and offer both sides of the argument; what the judges are looking for is how you deliver, vocal variety, engagement with the audience, body language, speech structure, and use of language; all that kind of thing.

At the end, I walked to the back of the hall to be de-mic’d, then took my seat again to hear the final three contestants. And…relax!

I’d originally planned to sneak off and miss the afternoon session, but the results of the Table Topics competition wouldn’t be announced until the very end of the meeting (I guess to stop people doing just that), so we stayed for the humorous speaking contest in the afternoon. And it was a good job we did! Not only was the warm—up guy very funny (he is, in fact, a stand-up comedian by trade), but the speeches were well-crafted, and very enjoyable.

After a bit more award-giving, the results of both competitions were announced. Whilst the scoring is not made public, there was, according to Nicola, one very clear winner of the Table Topics contest. Unfortunately, it wasn’t me. As the results were announced, it became obvious that I’d come fourth…along with four other contestants. Places are only announced for the top three, so the remaining contestants can all kid themselves that they just missed out. Results for the humorous speaking contest gave top spot to another clear winner, who stood out from the others. Both winners now go on to represent Wellington at the national convention, held in Invercargill in November.

That was my first foray into competing in Toastmasters. There will be further opportunities to compete in the international and evaluation contests next year. 

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